Princess Cruises’ Crisis Comms for Dirty Secret

How do you address allegations of illegal dumping and a $40m fine?

While a “magic pipe” might sound like something Alice’s caterpillar friend would enjoy, the Princess Cruises definition was quite a bit less whimsical and altogether more disgusting. A Department of Justice investigation has revealed that Princess was, among other offenses, using a device know as a “magic pipe” to bypass on-ship water treatment systems and unload “oily waste” directly into the ocean. The investigation has resulted in seven felony charges of illegal practices on Princess ships dating back to at least 2005, which come with a $40 million fine for the cruise line. Here are a couple of tidbits from the DOJ report:

  • “One practice was to open a salt water valve when bilge waste was being processed by the oily water separator and oil content monitor. The purpose was to prevent the oil content monitor from otherwise alarming and stopping the overboard discharge.”
  • “The second practice involved discharges of oily bilge water originating from the overflow of graywater tanks into the machinery space bilges. This waste was pumped back into the graywater system rather than being processed as oily bilge waste.”

The practices were first exposed by a whistleblower in 2013, and the Justice Department has also discovered that Princess employees worked to cover up the illegal practices before investigators could get on board. Dumping has been confirmed to have taken place off the coast of England, and likely just outside U.S. shores as well.

The cruise industry is no stranger to crisis, and Princess Cruises wisely got a statement up as the DOJ announcement was released. The cruise line published a written statement, as well as a YouTube video from president Jan Swartz:

The wording of the statement itself is decent, and addresses the basic “Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, and What Are You Doing About It?” of crisis communications. It is lacking in one major area though – where the heck is the compassion? Showing you understand how stakeholders are feeling is one of our Three C’s of Credibility (Confidence, Competence, and Compassion) for a reason. Princess undermines its own credibility by delivering an otherwise strong statement but completely failing to demonstrate that critical aspect that tells stakeholders “We get it, and we care.” And, of course, the video statement serves to reinforce that same point. Though Swartz does a better job than many company heads we’ve seen, the statement is clearly being read from a prompter and we don’t think the emotion displayed is enough to convince stakeholders that Princess cares.

Erik Bernstein
www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com

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